Two or so years ago, while many of the country’s large local broadcasters were in the throes of gobbling each other up, Graham Media Group deliberately delineated itself as a boutique station group—which is not just a nice way of saying it has fewer assets than the big guys.
“We suddenly started to feel like we were small because of the size of the group, but we were in these very large markets—big cities with a lot of influence,” says Graham president and CEO Emily Barr, who has lead the five-station group since 2012, when it was still called Post-Newsweek Stations.
So while other groups were growing multifold, Graham made the conscious decision to recast itself from being a small broadcast group to a boutique. To some degree, the move affirmed that Graham is a major player among local broadcasters regardless of size.
It also simply validated what the company, still run by the Graham family that owned The Washington Post, has been doing all along.
“By being a boutique group, we can be very attentive to the communities we serve,” says Barr, who says tailoring each station so that its programming and operations are specific to their markets is a key component of the company’s strategy. “We have a lot of good things going on.”
Barr is spot-on; Graham does have a lot of good things going on—so much so that it has earned the honor of being named 2016 B&C Station Group of the Year.
Each week, stations across the group produce 202 hours of news.
This year, two of Graham’s five stations— ABC affiliate KSAT in San Antonio, Texas, and WJXT, an independent in Jacksonville, Fla.—consistently had the top-rated newscasts in their markets, both of which they have dominated for years, according to Graham.
In addition to winning newscasts, KSAT created an online educational tool called “Right Under Our Noses,” aimed at providing information about the national opioid epidemic—and where viewers who need help can get it. It also produces a local variety show, SA Live.
WJXT, the group’s only indie station, produces 60-plus hours of news and local programming per week. The station is Jacksonville’s No. 1 broadcast and digital biller, as well as having the market’s most popular TV newscasts and website. WJXT out-rated the networks on Election Night, ringing in at No. 1, according to Graham. The station was noted in 2016 for its coverage of Hurricane Matthew, including an anchor’s heartfelt, and teary-eyed, plea for viewers to seek cover.
WJXT is so entrenched in the community that a local woman, Margaret Crawford, left a substantial portion of her estate to the station. The money funds scholarships for students who want to be broadcasters.
News produced by NBC affiliates KPRC Houston and WDIV Detroit rated No. 1 or No. 2 in markets that have competing stations owned by major players, including the Big Four networks, according to Graham.
In Detroit, WDIV made a priority of covering the Flint water crisis, with the devastating effects it had on public health still front and center. The station raised $1.3 million to help the children of Flint. WDIV’s investigative team, “The Defenders,” has dug deep into the ongoing problems in Detroit stemming from corruption and bankruptcy, as well as its revival. In May, WDIV hired Jason Carr, a local news personality, to be the station’s first digital anchor.
KPRC’s year included covering enormously destructive flooding; afterward, the station raised $700,000 to help victims.
In June, WKMG, the group’s CBS affiliate in Orlando, Fla. covered the Pulse nightclub shooting, the worst mass shooting U.S. history. It provided the answers and information viewers wanted, but with particular sensitivity for victims, their families and the larger community that was rocked by the attack, Graham leaders say. In the immediate aftermath, the station’s website, ClickOrlando.com, became a clearinghouse of information for people looking for loved ones. In the following days, WKMG immortalized the 49 people murdered that night, as well as the citizens and emergency workers who responded, by telling each one of their stories.
That breadth of activity across markets underscores Barr’s mantra that broadcast journalism cannot be done with a one-sizefits- all approach, and that local TV news only works when it is created for and by people invested in it.
“These are stories that you can’t cookie-cut,” Barr says. “You have to have people there on the ground, living and working to understand what it is the community cares about.”
Although Barr gets feeds from all of Graham’s stations in her Chicago office, she entrusts the people doing the hands-on work to provide the kind of TV viewers want. “I have full accessibility to watch them, but I don’t live there,” Barr says.
“It’s imperative that the general managers, the people who work in those markets, are living in those communities, and reflect it with their diversity of opinion, diversity of geography and diversity of gender—that they be the ones,” she says.
In 2016, Graham extended that commitment to digital platforms as well, which thrived on the heels of the group doubling the size of its digital team. It created new storytelling tools and developed apps that do everything from delivering long-form content over-the-top to providing event-specific information about goings-on like the Detroit International Auto Show.
According to Graham, the company’s sites across the group together drew 11 million monthly unique users during 2016. Mobile web use grew by 20%, mobile app users grew by 105% and users of weather apps grew by 75% in 2016. Live-stream views were up 60%, the group says.
Barr says the growth in digital activity reflects the group’s commitment to lighting up digital platforms with Graham’s local news brands with offerings innovative and engrossing enough to hook users—and keep them coming back for more.
“We made it an absolute priority that we be aggressive and forward in the digital world,” Barr says. “This is a whole new means of communication. When we look at the way we deliver local news, we have to understand people are going to connect when and how they want.”
Graham is backing up that edict with resources. In 2014, the group bought Social News Desk, a creator of software that helps newsrooms manage, curate and analyze social media. The group also invested in the crowdsourced weather app StormPins, which its stations brand and use locally. Graham this year also purchased two TV stations, the CW affiliate in Jacksonville and the NBC affiliate in Roanoke, Va., from Nexstar, which had to sell them as part of its Media General acquisition. Although the stations will add to Graham’s footprint, Barr says their purchase was born of opportunity—and is not part of some bigger plan to get in on M&A. Ann Pace Sutton, who is Graham’s head of special projects and has been with the company for more than 35 years, credits the group’s recent successes to Barr, who was ABC O&O WLS Chicago’s general manager before joining Graham. That is particularly true in Houston, where KPRC, which once lagged in the ratings, has made a turnaround following a new emphasis on investigating reporting and community building, she says. “Since Emily has been here, it has come back as a strong competitor,” Sutton says of KPRC.
WKMG in Orlando, the Graham station most in need of invigoration, is gaining traction, too, following its recent rebranding under the tagline, “News 6 Getting Results.” Sutton says Graham’s overall vitality stems from Barr’s philosophy of treating each station as an individual entity and operating it with authenticity. “San Antonio doesn’t look like Jacksonville, and Jacksonville doesn’t look like Detroit,” Sutton says. “We celebrate each station’s reflection of their respective communities.”
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